TRENT RICHARDSON sidestepped the cold, dirty water dripping from overhead as he trudged though a tunnel deep inside Denver's Sports Authority Field. The running back had the drawstring of his hoodie pulled tight so only his face was visible, the better to squeeze out the world. It was minutes after the Colts had pulled off the upset of the divisional-playoff weekend, beating the Broncos 24--13 on Sunday, and around him Richardson's Indy teammates whooped and chanted. "We're not a surprise!" tight end Dwayne Allen hollered, even though the win was definitely surprising. "Nobody gave us a chance," cried defensive end Cory Redding. "Shock the world!"
As the Colts' elation echoed off the low concrete ceiling, Richardson was silent. The No. 3 pick by the Browns in 2012 and the centerpiece of a blockbuster trade that delivered him to Indianapolis 16 months ago, Richardson was a healthy scratch against Denver, a week after playing just one snap against the Bengals. He averaged only 34.6 yards in 15 games this season and lost his starting job in Week 16 to Daniel Herron, who in September was third on the depth chart. Herron had just 78 carries during the regular season but has two starts and two touchdowns this postseason. For months the Colts tried to eke something out of Richardson. Eventually they looked elsewhere, following a clear pattern for an offense that took most of '14 to find itself.
While the Broncos spent this season waiting for their supposed Dream Team to catch fire, Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton had no such luxury: Only when Hamilton accepted that no member of Andrew Luck's supporting cast would be a breakout star did Indy move forward. Consider the differences between the offense Hamilton oversaw on Sunday and the one the Colts brought to the Mile High City in a Week 1 loss. Wideout Reggie Wayne, 36, who has spent much of the season hobbled by various injuries, led the Colts in the season opener with 98 yards receiving. Richardson paced the rushing attack with a whopping 20 yards, and Ahmad Bradshaw, who was lost for the year in November with a fractured left fibula, was the only other contributor to the ground game.
On Sunday, as Richardson watched from the sideline, Wayne had no catches and was targeted just once. Herron, who touched the ball 31 times and gained 95 all-purpose yards, didn't play in Week 1. Rookie receiver Donte Moncrief, who was targeted eight times in the playoff game, had just one ball come his way back in September. And on that day, tight end Coby Fleener had fewer total yards, 21, than he would on one game-changing reception on Sunday, a 32-yarder in the fourth quarter that set up the Colts' third TD. "Adapt or die," says Luck of the Colts' rebuilding on the fly. "I think everybody [bought] in."
Allen, who missed three games this season with ankle and knee injuries, believes the offense finally began to click around midseason. "We had some new faces on the line," he says. "Luck had different targets, and we were still trying to figure out where the targets would go. [Now] everyone knows their role. That's the most important thing."
Receiver T.Y. Hilton zeroes in on Week 14, in Cleveland, as the ultimate turning point. Indy trailed 14--7 in the fourth quarter, and Luck faced a crucial third-and-seven. But on that pass, instead of looking to Hilton, the QB targeted Moncrief, the rookie, over the middle. The 27-yard connection set up an eventual touchdown and a one-point win. "We put in another guy," Hilton says, "and we don't miss a beat."
As Richardson can attest, evolution can have its casualties. But adapt or die is a way of life in the NFL. And Indianapolis is still very much alive.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
LUCKY 'DOGS The Colts rode their Pro Bowl QB and a bunch of fill-ins, like Herron (36), to a divisional-round upset of the Broncos, the high point in a seasonlong offensive turnaround.